Kari Ikonen Trio – Beauteous Tales and Offbeat Stories (2015)

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With just the right amount of emotion and mystery, Kari Ikonen leads his trio into another playful, reflective and inventive outing with Beauteous Tales and Offbeat Stories. Following up on the sublime Bright, the richly talented pianist, composer and band leader from Finland again convenes with double bassist Ara Yaralyan and drummer Markku Ounaskari to keep this momentum going.

One of Ikonen’s strengths as a performer is his ability to demonstrate agility with gracefulness and not heavy-handedness. “L’avant-Midi D’une Elfe” is energetic but the piano is always dancing lightly and Ikonen knows how to modulate a solo well. Right after that he reveals his approach to ballads: a lithe touch for the Armenian tone poem “Astri Pes” that’s complemented by the sorrowful counterpoints of Yaralyan’s bowed bass.

The group takes on a Bollywood song “Poorab Disa Se” with tense, slippery rhythms and a moderate but unmistakable exotic flavor. An interesting chord progression but with catchy passages, it’s alluring but also a little elusive. And through it all, the three manage to keeps it swinging. Ikonen’s own “Septentrional” is yet more episodic, commencing with a searching opening before finding a loose groove. The leader’s piano grows more confident and then softens up, leaving the way for Yaralyan’s handsome bass solo before Ikonen returns to play in a more blues-based style. Overall, it’s a wonderfully dispersed song with an economical rendering of the melody and some European classical influence.

On Bright, Ikonen left us with a fresh take on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and does it again for ‘Trane’s “Countdown.” These aren’t the typical fleet footed runs up and down scales found in the original and most covers. Instead, Ikonen exploits his own dissection skills to completely break down the underrated melody contained in this song and then slowly build it back up again in an ever-evolving shape. For some time, Yaralyan and Ounaskari are quietly on one plane, Ikonen on another until they converge and confidently pick up steam toward a spirited performance.

Not content to do a straight repeat of the prior release’s formula, Ikonen and his trio take on new risks with four, relatively shorter group improvs. “Veritulppaani” is probably the most intriguing of these; Ikonen’s playing with directly on the strings of piano during the opening passage throws off odd echoes of delta blues. It soon becomes clear this is a nearly free song but even as the rhythm section assumes an unsettling presence, Ikonen strings together interesting tonal motifs.

Full of moments of beauty and offbeat explorations, Beauteous Tales and Offbeat Stories builds on and expands beyond the artfulness of Bright which itself was a strong effort. The Kari Ikonen Trio is the emerging European piano trio that people should be paying a lot of attention to.

Beauteous Tales and Offbeat Stories went on sale September 4, 2015 via Ozella Music. Visit Kari Ikonen’s website for more info.

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